Victorian breeding industry stalwart Mike Becker was the recipient of the 2023 Inglis Service To Industry Award for his long and outstanding service and dedication to the state’s breeding.
Becker’s career in Victoria began in 1989 when offered the lead role at Stockwell Stud, moving his young family to Melbourne on the back of an opportunity to work with Jim O’Connor in South Australia.
“I’d been in South Australia for four years and this farm (Stockwell) has just changed hands and I got a call to see if I’d come across,” Becker said.
“I remember it well. I got here in the middle of June in ’89 and I had never been to a colder place in my life.
“Four young kids, a dog and a cat and away we went.”
Champion racehorse Our Poetic Prince was purchased by the farm owners to stand as Stockwell Stud’s foundation stallion, and he was the ‘boom’ first season sire when initially purchased.
Over 100 mares were booked to Our Poetic Prince in his first season. However, the EHV-1 Herpes Virus went rampant across the farm in the same year, claiming the pregnancies of half the broodmares on site, and resulting in a loss of over half Our Poetic Prince’s first season bookings.
“The people who bought the stud had also bought the good colt Our Poetic Prince from the year before as their foundation stallion,” Becker said.
“We lasted about three years here, but got off to a disastrous start.
“There were 42 pregnant mares on the farm and about two weeks later we had a mare abort. She came back positive to EHV-1, and this was a year with a major outbreak of the virus. We finished up losing exactly half of the pregnancies that were on the farm in about a three-month period.
“Our Poetic Prince was the champion racehorse and was the go-to stallion in his first season with 110 very nice mares booked. However, because we’d had that virus, we were taboo, nobody wanted to come near the place with their mares.
“Poor old ‘Poey’ ended up covering 45 or 50 very meagre mares mostly owned by the people who owned the farm, and this ultimately destroyed his career.”
In 1992, Becker launched the Independent Stallion Station, located just down the road from Stockwell Stud (subsequently purchased by Emirates), at the Trescowthick family’s property.
This set-up was rarely seen in the country, and was heavily supported by the owner-breeder market, which Becker mentioned is not what today’s market offers.
“There were about 20 investors that came in to fund the operation, quite a cross-section of new and old breeders from across the state,” Becker said.
“It took off and it grew really well, ultimately ending up with 11 stallions at one stage covering huge numbers of mares and running a big number of staff.
“We kept it going through until 2004, and I think by then I was getting pretty jaded, concentrating so heavily on the stallions and not investing in a lot of mares.
“We did (prep) yearlings and foals. We were one of the first to start foal sales.
“There is a big auditorium on that property so we used to bring them all in and prep them up. Magic Millions used to come down and sell them for us, receiving some good results at a time where people didn’t really accept foal sales.
“Sadly, the owner-breeder market is now gone, but that is what our business was branded around with our affordable service fees in those days.”
Where the Victorian breeding journey began was where it led to once again. In 2007, Becker moved back to Emirates and re-namedthe property to Stockwell Thoroughbreds.
Becker stood the likes of Al Maher, Brief Truce, Arazi, and a personal favourite Artie Schiller, who is now retired from his stallion duties and is still owned by Becker, in partnership with his son Brodie.
Since then, Brodie and his wife Rowena have taken the business on, while Becker ensures he is hard at work, in a ‘backseat’ role.
“I have taken a backseat role, doing some of the more mundane job,” Becker chuckled.
“I keep very involved and still put in a week’s work, but Brodie is not of a mind to go ahead with the stallions and I don’t blame him.”
Becker also spent eight years as the President of Thoroughbred Breeders Victoria, putting Victoria back on the map as one of Australia’s premier breeding states.
Becker pushed hard for the success of Victoria-based stallions, including Encosta De Lago , prior to the stallion being relocated to the Hunter Valley, and Rubiton, after being purchased by Phil and Patti Campbell from New South Wales.
“The year I became President of Thoroughbred Breeders Victoria, the Melbourne yearling sale averaged less than Adelaide,” he stated.
“There was panic and people were leaving businesses, but I have seen that two or three times over my lifetime - when there is a recession, everyone just heads for the door, but of course the money always comes back.
“Our focus at that time was to promote the state as we still managed to produce a lot of very good horses.
“For the pool we were working with, we could see Victoria was more than batting above its weight. It was just not capturing the commercial appeal of the yearling market.
“It started back then, but the level of investment in Victoria has never been greater with the likes of Yulong investing at an unprecedented level or Widden wanting to set-up in Victoria.
“We were running with the ‘V for Victory’ campaign at one stage, promoting what the state was doing and this was all helped by horses like Encosta De Lago, Testa Rossa and the like.
“It was the fact that Encosta’s best horses were produced in Victoria and Rubiton’s best horses were produced in Victoria, this is what we were able to promote and that has led to some of Australia’s biggest players setting up in this state.”